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Transitions Part 1: Elevating Students from Elementary to Middle School

In our Transitions series, we’re examining the psychological issues students face in transitioning school levels, and how counselors can help them successfully make the move. Read Parts 2 and 3 here and here.  

Elevating Students from Elementary to Middle School

Making the move from elementary to middle school can be difficult for many students, so it’s important for counselors, administrators and teachers to be active in helping students transition as smoothly as possible.

A report from the Georgia Department of Education states “schools must play a primary role in the middle school transition process. While partnerships between families, schools, students and communities must be viewed as equally important with shared responsibilities, it is essential that schools take the lead in offering quality middle school transition activities that equip staff, families and community members with the information needed in order for them to assist students in a successful transition process.”

The department published a Final Middle School Transition Toolkit to help its counselors, teachers and administrators start the process of easing students into middle school as early as fourth grade.

Students at that age tend to be diligent and curious, often eager for new knowledge. But even for the most studious of pupils, the shift in the workload, the change of environment and the changing social landscape of middle school can prove to be challenging.

Transition Strategies

To help students make a smooth transition, they need to be introduced to the increased demands that they will eventually face early on and in ways that they can understand. Here are some strategies that can help ease the transition.

Developing the right mindset

Counselors can work with upper elementary students to help them develop the necessary mindset for a successful transition, according to an article in the June 2014 edition of ASCA School Counselor. The article addresses the idea of creating academic achievement groups, particularly focused on those students who didn’t perform well on standardized tests.

In the groups, they target two things – skill building and goal setting. It’s important for the goals to be specific, concrete and observable. The student needs to be able to see how he or she is progressing toward the goal. Skills addressed in the skill-building process are study skills, stress management, test anxiety, organization and report card review.

After the groups, the counselor in charge looked at test passing rates. The ones who had been selected for the group participation were at a 0% pass rate. The skills and goal-setting processes helped 55% of those students go on to pass the test, and 67% of teachers in the school found it to be helpful. 96% of those who participated thought they had benefited from the program.

Portraying middle school accurately

Counselors and teachers have a responsibility to accurately portray middle school, and not use it as a threat, according to an article from the National Education Association. Elementary school teachers, counselors and administrators should work together to be “upbeat and reassuring.” The article goes on to say that middle school staff “should be aware that students will experience anxieties associated with the change and they should begin efforts to neutralize these anxieties before school starts.”

This can be done in a number of ways, whether it’s reaching out to parents to encourage phone conferences or face-to-face meetings in the weeks before school starts, or creating a school orientation packed with activities that address the most common student fears such as getting lost on campus, having multiple teachers and dealing with a locker.

Answering student questions

A strategy for helping fifth-graders in feeder schools that has gained traction among middle school principals is to allow them to submit questions followed by the principal visiting each classroom to discuss the topic of middle school with them.

In an article for the Association for Middle Level Education, a Las Vegas-based middle school principal named Joy Jameson Lea writes, “The elementary school principals introduced me to each fifth-grade classroom. I strengthened our connection by asking such questions as, ‘Who has a sibling or friend at my school?’ I presented simple rules that would help the fifth graders prepare for middle school.”

When Jameson Lea visits the classrooms, she comes with a PowerPoint presentation that addresses the most commonly asked questions. She also has a school counselor come to the schools to address available extracurricular activities and holds a fifth-grade parents night to help students and families gain knowledge of school policies and procedures.

“When activities, energy, and curriculum align horizontally and vertically, great things happen. Students’ fears melt away, teachers collaborate, and parents transfer their involvement from the elementary school to the middle school,” Lea writes in her article.

Mentoring students

Student mentoring is another way to help ease the transition, as shown in a report published by the U.S. Department of Education. Counselors can look into forming one of these programs in their schools.

According to the report, some students see a decline in motivation toward school during this transition time, and may even experience a drop in reading levels. Self-esteem levels may also decrease, particularly in girls, and parents are less likely to be involved at this stage.

A mentoring program where older students reach out to younger students in an attempt to assuage fears has shown some success in certain areas of the country, and may be beneficial in a more widespread effort. The Department of Education aims its mentoring programs at kids in grades 4-8.

With support from elementary and middle school counselors, administrators and teachers, students can move into middle school with knowledge of what lies before them and how to successfully navigate their way through those common problems as they arise.

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